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Wisconsin towns await influx of Afghans — and wonder what it will mean

Downtown Sparta, Wis., on Aug. 28. (Mark Hertzberg for The Washington Post)

SPARTA, Wis. — Fort McCoy's Facebook page lit up in the hours after officials there announced that thousands of Afghan refugees would be coming to the Army base. In an instant, the website turned into an impromptu public forum as news spread that the largest airlift in U.S. history would affect a pair of blue-collar communities in western Wisconsin.

Some people wanted to know how they could donate blankets, warm clothes or canned goods to desperate strangers. Others worried that their community would face problems rooted in a chaotic withdrawal that, until a few days ago, was 7,000 miles away.

“The scenes — you know, the videos and stuff — that’s just not stuff that we see here,” said a man from nearby Sparta who did not want his name used for fear of being ostracized by his neighbors. “It’s sad to see, you know, the people so desperately trying to get out of there. I mean, it’s, you relate to that. But we absolutely have to consider our own safety. I just want to know what the plan is.”

Pat Hayes, 69, who also lives in Sparta, was far less apprehensive. “You know the negative people are going to think that it will turn out bad — you can’t change that,” she said. “But I would hope that we’ve grown to be better than that. I’m hoping that Sparta will be more welcoming.”

As the frenzied withdrawal from Afghanistan races toward an Aug. 31 deadline, the number of refugees at Fort McCoy is increasing by the day. The surrounding communities are watching warily, with the recent deaths of 13 Americans in Kabul only adding to the anxiety. Up to 10,000 Afghans could ultimately pass through the base, according to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

It’s still unclear whether the effect of the Afghan refugees on this part of Wisconsin will extend past the tall metal gates of the century-old installation. Yet residents are nursing concerns big and small: Will Afghan children share schoolrooms with local children in a district already short-staffed and contending with the coronavirus? Has the government properly vetted people fleeing a place known to harbor terrorists?

And while the Biden administration says the refugees will ultimately be settled throughout the country, residents here wonder: How long will western Wisconsin be playing host?

The answers to such questions will, among other things, color how people in this battleground state perceive President Biden, who narrowly won Wisconsin in November by 20,000 votes — a little more than half of a percentage point. As Biden says he’s restored competence and Republicans insist he’s brought only chaos, places such as Sparta will serve as a testing ground.

Nationally, several installations, including Fort Lee, Fort Pickett and Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, are the waystations in the United States for thousands of incoming refugees as the war in Afghanistan comes to its bitter end.

Among those with the most at stake are local school officials. Educators in the Tomah Area School District do not know whether they will be expected to help teach Afghan children, said Superintendent Mike Hanson, who is mulling contingency plans in case he suddenly faces an influx of students who speak only Pashto or Dari.

It won’t be easy. The district is already facing a teacher shortage, and attracting qualified educators to rural Wisconsin can be a challenge. The entire district has only one teacher of English as a second language — and this is her first year.

“I am in a wait-and-hold pattern,” Hanson said. “We’re out there working, doing our best. But I just would like to know somewhat soon what the metric will be, because time is ticking to get these kids what they need. There’ll be trauma, there’ll be so many different things, and so we’ll need some resources to deal with that.”

The churn in Wisconsin is unfolding against the backdrop of the heated national debate over Afghanistan, one with strong implications for the upcoming midterm elections. Biden’s critics have pounced on the chaos surrounding the withdrawal, including a suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport Thursday that resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 other people. The Islamic State-Khorasan claimed responsibility for the attack, and Biden has vowed retribution. The U.S. military carried out a drone strike on an Islamic State target in Afghanistan on Friday.

Johnson and other Republicans toured Fort McCoy on Wednesday and blasted the president, saying the disarray in Afghanistan reflects his incompetence and questioning his ability to handle the resettlement of refugees. They noted that leaders at the fort had just 10 days to prepare for thousands of newcomers who must be housed, fed and provided with medical care.

But Johnson said his chief concern is whether the federal government has adequately vetted the Afghans during the hectic withdrawal — or even has a reliable way of identifying them. “Maybe they’re taking biometrics, but you need biometrics taken beforehand that you can compare them to,” Johnson said at a news conference backdropped by the gates of the fort. “It would be nice if we knew everyone even just had an identification card, but I’m hearing they don’t.”

Wisconsin State Senate President Pro Tempore Pat Testin (R) wrote to Gov. Tony Evers (D) complaining that Biden’s “precipitous and poorly planned actions” show his administration is not up to the task of executing the largest airlift in American history without doing enduring harm to places such as Monroe County.

Biden has pushed back hard against such assertions, saying that all Afghan refugees will be thoroughly vetted and that the United States has a moral obligation to look out for those who aided the Afghanistan war effort. He also blamed President Donald Trump for damaging America’s refugee process.

“Anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check, and we must all work together to resettle thousands of Afghans who ultimately qualify for refugee status,” Biden said recently. “The United States will do our part, and we are already working closely with refugee organizations to rebuild a system that was purposefully destroyed by my predecessor.”

Americans strongly favor aiding Afghans, polls suggest. Some 81 percent said the United States should support those who helped the United States, according to a CBS News-YouGov poll published on Aug. 22. Johnson and other Republicans were careful to speak of the obligation to them even while criticizing Biden.

Evers toured Fort McCoy on Wednesday, as his administration announced it would deliver diapers, clothing and other items to the refugees.

“Our allies from Afghanistan have a long road ahead of them, and Wisconsin will continue to extend our support and assistance to these individuals who bravely contributed to our country’s efforts over the past two decades,” Evers said.

About 1,000 service members from multiple units of the U.S. Army and Army Reserve are assembling at the base to support the refugee mission.

Those taking refuge at the fort include Afghans who progressed through the Special Immigrant Visa acceptance process. They also include potentially vulnerable people such as professors, journalists and attendees of girls’ schools who fear reprisals now that the Taliban has taken over.

Fort McCoy has a history of playing host to refugees, a past that is now coloring how some see the current effort.

In 1980, thousands of Cuban refugees were transported to Fort McCoy during the Mariel boatlift. Wisconsinites living near Fort McCoy thought they were housing people fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime, but Castro later said he had taken the opportunity to empty Cuba’s jails and mental institutions.

Those statements contributed to a narrative that the refugees who arrived at Fort McCoy were not dissidents but people who had come from mental institutions or jails.

The turmoil wasn’t solely propaganda. Inside the compound, guards had to contend with fights and riots. Outside, memories differ on how much the community suffered.

Crime rose in the La Crosse area — most strikingly, when a refugee named Lene Cespedes-Torres was convicted of murdering his sponsor, Berniece Taylor, in her Tomah home on Sept. 13, 1980.

Some blamed President Jimmy Carter. “If President Carter wants these Cubans in the United States, they should work on Carter’s peanut farms,” Hayes, who was then a Sparta City Council member, told a local newspaper at the time.

Others say the offenses were overwhelmingly minor — peaches pilfered and the occasional jacket stolen by refugees who were hungry and cold. Barbara Rice, 93, said she never felt any real danger, adding: “I certainly continued to walk in the woods. I was more concerned about meeting a bear than a Cuban.”

Forty years later, Rice trusts that Biden is taking the right steps. “My feeling is he’s doing the best he can with such a mess,” she said. “I think universally we don’t trust one another. And so I’m dedicated to maintaining trust in my government and my democratic desires.”

Still, while it remains unclear how much the refugees will mingle with people in the surrounding towns, even the optimists see a potential for cultural conflicts and misunderstandings.

Some 99.7 percent of the population of Afghanistan is Muslim, but fewer than 1 percent of Wisconsinites are. And for many, the enduring image of the country is of a nation that supported Osama bin Laden as he planned the 9/11 attacks two decades ago — even if that support was provided by the Taliban regime, not ordinary Afghans.

Monroe County Historian Jarrod Roll said that, although most of the residents he’s spoken to seem welcoming, in previous mass migrations to Wisconsin, cultural differences have sparked distrust or animus in a community that is mostly White and Christian.

“I think it can become an underlying bitterness . . . or just feeling like, ‘If I had a choice, I would not want you in my life,’ ” he said.

Ultimately, the Afghans’ reception will hinge on whether Wisconsinites conclude they are vulnerable or decide they are menacing, Roll said.

“Who controls the narrative is going to be very important in this situation, because it’s going to be about how you see the refugees,” Roll said. “Do you see them as human beings in desperate need of help, or do you see them as potential terrorist threats? Whose story you listen to, and how that story unfolds, is going to make a big difference.”